Kids born in the 21st century won’t remember a time when music wasn’t mobile—a time when we encountered music almost exclusively through objects in our living rooms. But the rise of the boombox in the late 80s and early 90s began the shift toward mobile music, when our phones and streaming services make music ubiquitous. Early boomboxes were still analog, not digital, but they hinted at the future world of mobile music.
During the process of planning our upcoming SoundSpace program—which takes place at the Blanton on Sunday, February 28 at 2 p.m.—we looked for ideas that connected contemporary music to the cultural trends of the 1990s, as depicted in the museum’s new exhibition Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s. And indeed, boomboxes are all over the cultural landscape of 1989–2001, the years that the exhibition covers.
For instance, boomboxes are central to the denouement of two iconic American films of 1989: Do the Right Thing, in which the film’s climactic riot sequence is sparked when the white pizzeria owner destroys a young black man’s boombox; and of course the emo boombox serenade of Peter Gabriel in Say Anything. The two films are completely different in tone and politics, but in each the boombox carries incredible power within the film’s story. Radio Raheem’s boombox in Do the Right Thing literally spins Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” over and over again, encouraging the black patrons of the pizzeria to stand up for their cultural heritage against the racist owner. In both films, the boombox is a medium for communication between its operator and its audience—it makes listening to music a social experience.
Music videos provide other examples: find a 90s music video with a boombox and you’re bound to find a party, or at least someone looking to connect with other people. There’s the talking dog toting his boombox and looking to meet friends in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” and the dancers with their contraband boombox at the movie theater in Fatboy’s Slim’s “Praise You”—the world’s first flash mob? Compare both of these with 90s music videos featuring characters listening in private, such as Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” or David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” These songs’ titles tell you all you need to know about how their videos’ protagonists encounter strangers out in the world. Boomboxes are for making friends and sharing public experiences; listening solo creates anxiety, paranoia, and menace.
Boomboxes are a central component to our upcoming SoundSpace show for precisely this reason: to emphasize the social potential of music. We’re encouraging visitors to bring their own boomboxes to the museum to participate in two compositions for “boombox choirs.” These works evoke experiments from the 1990s by artists like The Flaming Lips, who designed participatory concerts to be played on multiple stereos in parking lots, and even released an entire album on 4 CDs to be played simultaneously.
One piece to be performed at SoundSpace is by the American composer Phil Kline. The work, Premonition, is designed for 25 boomboxes and was actually recorded to CD in 1998, though the two-channel recording only approximates the layers of the 50-channel live performance. The second boombox piece is a premiere by Austin-based composer Laura Brackney. And although each piece is based on the technological limitations of the 20th century, there’s a boombox ethos alive in these works—to enhance the social function of music through our programs at the museum and through our current exhibition.
Where there’s a boombox, there’s a party.
Make sure to drop by the Blanton this Sunday, February 28 from 2-4pm to experience SoundSpace: Music of the 1990s.
Adam Bennett organizes the music, film, and lecture series at the museum in his role as the Blanton’s manager of public programs. He also writes about arts and culture and practices law in Austin.